FRAGMENTS OF FUTURE HISTORIES
LISTEN TO WHAT YOU SEE
I always think that sound is somehow a better vehicle than photography to carry memories; probably a sign of my own bias.
Cedric Maridet, Bending the Air, Again
Given Cedric Maridet’s background in sound art, cultures of listening and acoustic research, it seems worth noting that the use of sound as a medium of exploration is conspicuously absent in the collected fragments that make up this exhibition. Yet in many ways it is precisely this absence that hangs like a spectre over every text, image and object; casting a doubtful ear on our ability to really know what we are looking at.
Take for instance the genesis of this project, an expedition to the Arctic circle, which took Maridet to the far reaches of human settlement: Pyramiden, an abandoned coal mining town, the Ny-Ålesund research base and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Faced with such sublimity and grandeur, how can the artist communicate these experiences through his work?
One solution, which Maridet seems intent on avoiding, would be to produce a kind of picturesque travelogue worthy of the annals of National Geographic. Breathtaking vistas from far away lands to supplement the already saturated image vault of the armchair explorer. In fact, what becomes increasingly evident is how Maridet is less interested an exploration of the Arctic per se, than in the values and attitudes that have coloured man’s relationship with, or against the environment. Nevertheless, it is the extreme conditions of the Arctic context that brings focus to such investigations.
“Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt.” So goes the epitaph from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. It is also one of the passages that Maridet has chosen for a series of crystallised book pages with last sentences culled from a handful of science fiction classics, including The Time Machine (H. G. Wells), Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury) and Solaris (Stanislaw Lem).
Returning to the Vonnegut epitaph, recovered here, as it were, from the permafrost after some great cataclysm has befallen the planet, it could just as well be referring to the picturesque travelogue, which in all its illusory completeness seduces us into believing in a sublimity that is devoid of pain.
It is with this frame of mind that Maridet has approached the photographic documents of his journey. Not content with taking straight photos of the Arctic landscape, he opted first to intervene with projections of more literary quotations, this time invented, or borrowed from Gabriel Tarde (The Underground Man) and Alfred Tennyson (Ulysses). These texts function like anamorphic stains, distorting our view of the bleak landscape with their cautionary messages.
They also highlight the inevitable fictions that accompany any reading of photographs, starting with the ever present caption, which by illustrating what we see, ends up limiting the possibilities of the image within the confines of what we know. Although Maridet’s textual interventions cannot be entirely immune from this charge, they maintain a certain ambiguity that points toward the fundamental disconnection, or untranslatable gap between the visible and the intelligible.
THE LAST IMAGE OF KOSMOS 1154
The theme of translation is taken up again, this time with reference to Maridet’s surprise witness to the re-entry of rocket debris from the Russian (formerly Soviet) intelligence satellite Kosmos 1154 into the Earth’s atmosphere, after almost 35 years in orbit. Although members of Maridet’s expedition were able to capture some snapshots of the flaming object across the sky of Svalbard, he has chosen not to show any of these images directly, but to further mingle his re-telling of the event with a story from the opposite spectrum of the Cold War Space Race.
By mid July 1965, the Mariner 4 spacecraft had successfully beamed back to NASA data containing the first close-up images of Mars. Whilst waiting for the computer processed images, communications engineers used a “real-time data translator” to convert raw pixel information into a numerical print out, which was then hand coloured like a paint-by-numbers drawing. Maridet has used a similar technique to produce his own hand-drawn record of the Kosmos re-entry, converting pixel information from a digital photo into numerical brightness values.
In an era where the rising ubiquity of the photographic image has come to supersede the uniqueness of direct-lived experience, perhaps some solace might be found in such playful historical reversals. By taking us back to this moment in 1965, a time when the hand-drawn still maintained the upper-hand over snail-paced computer processors, Maridet’s melancholic identification with the past becomes a negative stand-in for what has become lost in the present; revealing layer upon layer of absence and obsolescence, that is to say, progress.
With ubiquity comes banality, and that is what the video frames contained in Horizontal Drift present the viewer with in abundance. Over three hours of slowly panning footage of the sea, sky and snow; devoid of the drama that one might associate with incinerating space debris. Yet the video is also to be seen as an object in its own right, with its retro-futuristic plastic frame enveloping the TV screen, describing those long hours at sea looking out of the window, waiting for something to happen.
…waiting, immobility, snatches of sleep. Curiously all of that makes me think of a past or future war: night trains, air raids, fallout shelters, small fragments of war enshrined in everyday life. He liked the fragility of those moments suspended in time. Those memories whose only function had been to leave behind nothing but memories. He wrote: I've been round the world several times and now only banality still interests me. On this trip I've tracked it with the relentlessness of a bounty hunter.
Chris Marker, Sans Soleil
The notion of a confirmation bias is the tendency to interpret information according to one’s preconceptions about a given occurrence. An example of this can be found in the historical use of a weather forecasting device known as the storm glass, a hybrid version of which Maridet has reproduced in the form of a partitioned plexiglass tank containing variable mixtures of distilled water, ethanol, potassium nitrate and ammonium chloride. Patterns of crystal formations that appeared in these solutions were thought to have resulted from subtle changes in climate, and used to predict the weather according to a set of prescribed rules (for instance, a cloudy glass with small stars indicates thunderstorms). Many studies have since discredited the accuracy of the storm glass, concluding that the success of predictions are no better than random chance.
For hypothetical proponents of the storm glass, one might describe the confirmation bias in terms of the faith placed in these rules of crystal formation; selectively crediting successful predictions to the accuracy of the device, and dismissing or simply ignoring the unsuccessful. The bias then, is like the attitude of the system, which does not change since it believes itself to be true.
FAST KILL / PYRAMIDA
Such attitudes provide Maridet with a constant source of fascination; self-validating epistemological errors and blind faith in technology that have often led to disastrous consequences. Where knowledge and mastery over nature becomes subject to an insufficient understanding of the nature of knowledge and power. “The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think” (Gregory Bateson).
Some of these ideas are further encapsulated in a series of territorial “reductions” compiled out of artefacts and raw materials collected over the course Maridet’s expedition. Presented like triangular sections of Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion map, Maridet refers to these meta-landscapes not as “lands with their own ecologies and cultures, but as challenges to be conquered by technological ingenuity and manly daring.”
The series of mobile sculptures titled Parhelia refer an atmospheric phenomenon that consists of a pair of bright spots appearing on either side of the sun, often together with a luminous ring known as the 22º halo. The common cause of parhelia are the refraction of light through hexagonal ice crystals in the atmosphere. Maridet has attempted to recreate this phenomenon artificially via an intricate arrangement of LED bulbs and spinning acrylic prisms, with metallic supports reminiscent of radio towers and electric pylons.
Maridet's repeated use of crystals and crystallisation processes act as fragmented lens, which both scatters and reconfigures our attempts to understand the world that surrounds us; like the shifting formations inside a storm glass. Crystalline structures, which are both naturally occurring yet profoundly ordered and logical, suggest the possibility of a secret geologic knowledge that exists in tandem with that of the humanly knowable.
In this way, Maridet begins to situate the small fragment of time that encapsulates the entire history of mankind within the far more expansive framework of geological or even cosmological time; echoing contemporary debates on the Anthropocene by considering the human in terms that are removed from assumptions of purpose. This shifting position is summarised in the 3-channel video that contains abstract microscopic footage of glacial ice, named after another Vonnegut contrivance, the Chrono-Synclastic Infundibulum; a quasi-quantum dimension where “all the different kinds of truths fit together” and those who become caught in it are unstuck in time, existing simultaneously everywhere at once. Like Vonnegut, Maridet invites us to momentarily shed the baggage of human hubris to engage in the abyss of the speculative imagination.